Friday, June 26, 2015

HALL, NO! ROSE ABSOLUTELY DOESN'T BELONG

This is for all the apologists. For everybody who wants “the best” to get their due. It’s for those who have spent the past two-plus decades ignoring the lies, hubris and belligerence. For those who can’t discern self-absorbed defiance from true contrition. And it’s for those who think that second chances don’t have to be earned, rather just given away like participation trophies to Little Leaguers.

Most of all, it’s for those who just can’t see that no matter how many times Pete Rose says he’s sorry, he really isn’t. That he will do anything to get into the Hall of Fame.

Except tell the whole story.

El Hombre is astounded that despite this week’s revelations by espn’s “Outside the Lines” program that Rose bet on baseball while he was a player, a large number of people still believes he should be granted a full return to the sport he played so well. That includes admission to the Hall of Fame.

Before the report, which links Rose further to organized crime, there was a growing sentiment among fans and media to reinstate Rose. He was given a role in this summer’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati. And many believed that the retirement of Bud Sellout from the commissioner’s post would lead to a thaw in relations between Majoke League Baseball and Rose. Thanks to the new information, the Midsummer Classic will be tainted by Rose’s presence – even more so than it might by having eight Kansas City players in the starting lineup. Instead of talking about the game, we will be wondering whether Rose has a couple bucks on whether the National Anthem will take longer than two minutes to sing and if Moose and Rocco will have to help him find his checkbook should he fail to cash.

This isn’t just about the fact that Rose threw down money on games in which he played – always to win, of course. It’s about the cascade of lies he has told over the past 26 years in an attempt to convince people he hadn’t done that. It was bad enough that Rose asserted for years that he didn’t wager while managing the Reds. Once it became obvious to everybody but the most blindly ardent Charlie Hustleheads that he wasn’t telling the truth, Rose crafted a narrative of a man who so believed in his abilities that he couldn’t help but back himself. He put down bets on Cincinnati every night, expecting that he could lead the team to victory. What’s wrong with that, anyway?

Many people believed that wasn’t so bad. Forget that he wasn’t exactly going to the OTB to make his plays. No, Rose was dealing with the Big Boys, the kneebreakers. But he wasn’t trying to throw games or hurt baseball’s competitive balance. Or at least that’s what he thought. His consorting with gamblers and bookies and other sundry descendants of Bruno Tattaglia exposed the sport to the thing it feared the most: tainted outcomes. Once he was caught and proven to have gambled while managing, Rose fought back. He denied. And denied again. When he was finally out of ammunition, he tried another tack. Suddenly, he was a contrite man who was sorry for his sins against baseball.

Except he wasn’t.

With each passing year, the avalanche of lies grew. And the saps who believed that Rose hadn’t bet on baseball as a player became louder in their calls for reinstatement. Each time Rose asserted that he was clean while on the field, he pushed himself further from any chance that he should be welcomed back. He made baseball look bad, because its ruling class began to soften about his case. First would be the All-Star Game participation. Then there might be a World Series how-do-you-do. Finally, Rose would get the invitation he coveted since his career ended, when he promised to hunt down anyone who didn’t include him on their Hall of Fame ballot.

Had Rose admitted everything from the start, he would have most certainly been banned. But had he sought treatment for his gambling addiction, spent time speaking to MLB players about the dangers of placing even one bet and adopted a conciliatory tone toward those who proved he was guilty, he would be in the Hall by now. America loves giving second chances, and though Rose’s play caused many to dislike him, a showing of real remorse would have made him a sympathetic figure and would have allowed him to get everything he wanted.

Instead, Rose was bellicose from the start. He refused to give ground, and even when he did concede, he did so only partially. He refused to admit what he had done, so it was impossible to forgive him. Now that we know he bet while he was a player, Rose moves further into baseball’s jailhouse. His original sin was bad enough. His repeated lying after it re-started the clock after every new denial. The debate here is not whether players who scuffed balls, stole signs, corked bats, or took greenies belong in the Hall. It’s that 26 years after his ban, Rose is still trying to get back into the game on his terms. He has given ground grudgingly, refusing to tell his whole story. Until he sits down with a media member who has true gravitas, not some sympathetic simp, and tells the truth, the idea of reinstatement is preposterous.

For some, Rose is a tragic figure, a top-flight athlete whose inner fire led him in directions that were not good for him or the game. That may be true, but Rose’s time to prove that has passed. Now laid bare, he has no choice but to ask for mercy and hope that people will believe he is truly remorseful and therefore worthy of forgiveness. That won’t be easy for Rose. Humility hasn’t been one of his strong suits over the past 50-plus years, so it will be hard to believe if he is telling the truth or merely working another con.

Whatever good will Rose may have accrued before the OTL report should vanish, and the standard for his reinstatement must grow tougher to meet. It’s not just a question of how much time he served. It’s a case of whether Rose has the character to admit his wrongdoings. Unfortunately, that will be much harder for him than hitting a 95-mph fastball ever was.

And the smart money won’t be on him to succeed.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: So, the Big 12 is talking about expanding to 12 teams, in the hopes of staging a football championship game and of living up to its name. Thanks to the realignment binge that took place earlier this decade, the conference doesn’t exactly have a great list of candidates from which to choose. Try to imagine the excitement generated for that annual Oklahoma-Central Florida clash. Or how much member schools will love competing against BYU’s 25-year olds. Perhaps the Big 12 can force Houston, Cincinnati, South Florida and Memphis to combine to form Amalgamated State U. Or it could convince Connecticut that mid-February basketball road trips to Lubbock aren’t such a bad thing – if you’re used to competing in the Iditarod. Face it, Big 12: You blew it. Either dip into the minors (Hello, Boise State!) or stay with 10 schools and make the most of it. Expansion isn’t a good idea right now…What’s this? The NCAA is going to do something that actually benefits the athletes? Wow! Wednesday, the organization announced legislation that, if approved, would allow players who declared for the NBA Draft to return to school after being evaluated at the Combine, provided they hadn’t hired agents. Sounds like a great idea, and it’s amazing the college folks want it to happen. Not that member schools won’t benefit from having a few more top players on rosters for another year or two. But this is progress – and quite unexpected from a money-grubbing association that sticks it to athletes whenever possible…After watching the young Indians fan catch a foul ball with his hat earlier this week, the Phillies inquired about his availability. The kid considered the offer for a while before announcing that he would rather stick with his Little League squad because it played better ball…After hearing that the winner’s share at next month’s British Open has been boosted to $1.8 million, Greece began scouring the archipelago for anyone capable of hitting a golf ball straight. The hope his that the man chosen will get lucky enough to win the tournament and rescue the country’s flagging economy with the winnings –or at least hold off the accumulating debt for five minutes…Speaking of golf, last week’s U.S. Open was one for the everyman. The course’s generally unkempt (and often brown) conditions looked like so many U.S. families’ lawns, and Dustin Johnson’s three-putt on 18 with big money on the line no doubt cheered all of those country club hacks who have missed a six-footer with a two-dollar Nassau on the line…This just in: espn college basketball promoter Jay Bilious has released his “Best Duke players available” list for next year’s draft. At a network filled with people who have agendas, he stands out – and that’s saying something.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The clock has officially started on Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, who somehow convinced the nation’s toughest fans that two years of stinking – although not enough to get the top pick in the draft either time – was the way to build a contender. There is to be no more tanking, no more rosters packed with D-league rejects and other bargain-basement bumblers. Hinkie is to stop accumulating meaningless “assets” (this year’s second-round “haul” was filled with Eurosuspects) and begin to build a winner. That, of course, will be hard to do, since he has alienated agents with his salary-cap shenanigans and his desire to sign minor leaguers over actual NBA players. No free agent worth a damn will want to come to this town to play for a franchise that has zero credibility when it comes to displaying any intent to win. That’s too bad for Hinkie, who can play secret agent all he wants, so long as the Sixers start to win games and prove they are a viable NBA franchise. The good news, at least for buy-and-flip owner Josh Harris, is that the franchise’s value has ballooned 150% since he purchased it. Sounds like it’s time to sell – or maybe Harris and Hinkie can pretend like they want to win some games.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Reports out of New York indicate that Patriots QB Tom Innocent put on quite a show during the 10-hour appeal hearing about his four-game suspension for ordering the deflating of game balls. He was charming. He was prepared. He flashed that winning smile. He even produced a letter of endorsement from New England owner Robert Kraft, sent from Israel and notarized by Moses. Behind the show was an assurance that if NFL commissioner Roger Goodfornothing doesn’t erase the sentence completely, the trouble will really start. There will be lawsuits and grievances filed. Innocent might even hold his breath until he turns blue, something that could inflate his cheeks to more pounds/square inch than those footballs he used against the Colts. Despite a significant amount of evidence against him, Innocent is denying everything. It will be interesting to see if Goodfornothing stands tall or relents in the face of Innocent’s P.R. blitz and Kraft’s displeasure, or if he shows some spine. Given Goodfornothing’s track record, bet on the latter. Innocent will have his sentence reduced by at least two games, if not eliminated all together. Usually, the Commissioner’s job is to protect the shield. In this instance, Goodfornothing could be just protecting his job.

-EH-

Friday, June 19, 2015

NBA COPYCATS MAY GO SMALL NEXT WEEK AT DRAFT

The NBA is such a copycat league that if a team were ever to win a championship using a starting five comprised entirely of boy-band members, every other franchise would be out there, trying to acquire the rights to any Backstreet Boy or One Direction member available. And Menudo? Time to cash in again, fellas.

That characteristic makes Golden State’s 2015 title interesting for more than just its ending of the team’s 40 years of futility. Watching the Warriors dictate terms with a lineup that rarely included someone taller than 6-8 demonstrated the growing feeling throughout the league that traditional personnel ideas are no longer relevant. Center Andrew Bogut played in only four of the six Finals games and was on the court for a mere 74 minutes, or just 24 more than Festus Ezeli. Yes, that Festus Ezeli.

It’s entirely possible that if Cleveland had been at full strength for the Finals and had employed 6-10 Kevin Love at the four spot, the Warriors wouldn’t have been able to imitate an NCAA mid-major outfit and win without a conventional deployment. Then again, since Love prefers life on the outskirts, the Warriors could have stayed small and simply hung with the forward outside the arc.

The point is that before the Warriors vanquished Cleveland and continued northeast Ohio’s championship drought, many in the league thought Golden State’s style was more suited for fun than winning big. It was kind of like eating ice cream for dinner. It’s cool once in a while, but when real nutrition and energy are necessary, there had better be something more balanced on the menu.

That’s all changed now, even if LeBron James was playing with a group of players that couldn’t have beaten the Sixers without him. It seemed like every time the ball landed in Tristan Thompson’s hands, he treated it as if it were yellowcake uranium. As the series wore on, Iman Shumpert’s hair got higher, and his shooting percentage went lower. And by about the fourth game, pugnacious Aussie Matthew Dellavedova was back to playing like the undrafted scrapper he was. Ten years from now, no one will bring up the Cavs’ downtrodden state when assaying the Warriors’ title. They will celebrate it as a triumph of free-flowing, saturation-bombing ball and perhaps as the moment when the NBA abandoned its generations-old addiction to the classic big man.

Which brings El Hombre to next Thursday’s NBA Draft. For the first time in a long while (how’s that for research?!) the crop of newbies is loaded with tall people – and not just tall people who wish they were point guards. El Hombre is talking about real, live centers. Sure, some of them can “step out” and shoot from the outside, but they are primarily designed for interior use. Normally, that would be great news for the league, but thanks to Golden State’s mid-sized championship run, some teams may re-think their desire to have Gulliver in the post.

That means 7-0 Kristaps Porzingis, the pride of Latvia, could be in play for one of the top three picks, instead of falling to the five or six spot, as was originally suspected. Porzingis has a syrupy-sweet shooting stroke and range that extends to Moldova. There’s only one problem: when calling the roll of Latvian expats who have starred in the NBA, there is no entry beyond, “Nobody, Ever”. Porzingis would be the first, and though some make the argument that the preponderance of Lithuanian standouts would confer some sort of Baltic basketball brotherhood on Porzingis, saying that Porzingis will be fine since Latvia neighbors Lithuania is like saying Norman Fell could sing, just because he spent some time next to Frank Sinatra in Ocean’s Eleven. It’s a risk.

Guards D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay, however, do not seem to be potential busts, and given Russell’s expected proficiency in the pick-and-roll, and Mudiay’s ability to drive and kick, they would seem perfect for the NBA’s post-Warrior world.

Still, trying to predict what everybody will do won’t be easy. It looks like the Timberwolves are going big, which means Karl Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor. Towns is versatile and has that wonderful (gasp!) upside, but Okafor was described by one NBA exec to El Hombre as having the potential to swell up “like Kevin Duckworth”. Ouch. The Lakers sit in the number two spot, and it will be interesting to see if Kobe Bryant storms into the war room with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and demands that he make the pick. Retire, already, Mamba. It’s over.

The Sixers have tanked in earnest to reach the number three spot, although how competent can an organization be when it actively tries to have the worst record in the league but only finishes third from the bottom? Whoever the Sixers take had better be worried, because if GM Sam Hinkie decides to trade wins for draft picks again, the pick could be Gilloolyed, in order to maximize the stink. At the rate this rebuild is going, Philadelphia would be wise to plan a parade route – for 2023.

And then there are the Knicks, who have reached such an advanced state of Zen under GM Phil Jackson that they no longer care about the outcome of games. It’s all about the journey. As long as that trip guarantees 25 shots a game for CarMElo Anthony, everything is fine. It doesn’t matter whether New York selects a player who combines the greatness of Wilt, the Big O, MJ and Lebron, so long as Anthony is on the roster, a championship is out of the question. And, while El Hombre is at it, all of that talk about players’ wanting to come to play for GM Jackson was nonsense. He managed outstanding players well while he was a coach. As a GM, he hasn’t a clue. If there is anyone who will scoff at the Warriors’ title’s being the harbinger of a New Way, it will likely be Jackson.

And then he can consult the Dalai Lama about what talisman he should have in his pocket during next May’s Draft Lottery.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Big news, NASCAR fans! Dale Earnhardt has proposed to long-time girlfriend Amy Reimann. Immediately after the announcement, Waffle House announced a nationwide contest in which folks can determine which of one of the chain’s restaurants will host the reception…The fallout from the recent FIFA scandal continues to grow. An investigation has found evidence of P.E.D.s in the post-game juice boxes of youth players in five countries. Outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter responded to the report by designating the offending nations finalists to host the 2026 World Cup…If anyone is the least bit upset that Russell Wilson is aggravated with Seattle regarding his contract situation, remember that he has spent the past three years providing high level performance for peanuts. He’ll make just $1.5 million this year. By contrast, the Bears’ Jay Cutler is due a minimum of $54 mil over the course of his seven-year deal to keep Chicago out of the playoffs. Get mad, Russell, get mad…That was quite a strong showing by Eldrick Woods in the first round of the U.S. Open at the Chambers Bay funhouse on Puget Sound. (Side note: where was the windmill hole?) Isn’t it time the golf world realized that there isn’t going to be any miracle major charge by Woods and let golf move on without him? Nobody on the tour fears him anymore, and PGA officials no longer make sure his every whim will be satisfied. He had his time, but it’s over. Deal with it, golf…It’s one thing to populate a front office with executives who never played baseball and quite another to let Sheldon, Raj and the boys think they can use their nerd powers to mess with another team. Then again, if players are going to juice, cork bats, apply KY Jelly to baseballs and steal signs, it makes sense that the Pocket Protector Set will cheat, too. Just as long as they’re not working on a death ray that can shoot out of the scoreboard, everything will be okay…It seems odd that El Hombre has to go over this again, but until the sports media learns what a real dynasty is, he will continue his vigilance. The Zhou folks ruled in China for nearly 800 years (1046-256 B.C.) The Bulgar tribes were brought together by the House of Dulo, which reigned for 2,890 years (2137 B.C.-753 A.D.). And the Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years (1957-69). Winning three Stanley Cup titles in six seasons is NOT a dynasty. It’s a great run, but please don’t succumb to the hype. El Hombre thanks you.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Things are pretty bleak in the world of Philadelphia sports these days, but it doesn’t get any worse than the Phillies, who reached their most recent nadir in Tuesday’s 19-3 humiliation in Baltimore, their 18th loss in 21 games. After that fiasco, which included two innings of relief work by outfielder Jeff Francoeur, the entire front office, manager Ryne Sandberg and his coaching staff should have resigned en masse, or, better yet, subjected themselves to a hot dog cannon firing squad. This crippling hangover from the fat, 2007-11 period shows no signs of abating. Other than Cole Hamels, the starting pitching staff is barely AA quality. The team is last in the majors in runs scored, homers, OPS and RBI. It is still three wins short of 10 on the road. A franchise that was one of the best two or three in baseball during the aforementioned five-year stretch has become a joke. There can be only one viable solution: fire GM Ruin Tomorrow and Sandberg. Ship off all the bumbling veterans, no matter what it costs, so that fans don’t have to be reminded every day of their grotesque contracts. Start over, with proven baseball people, a big-league analytics department and scouts who don’t suggest spending the 10th overall pick in the draft on a high school player who has no National League position. The disaster continues, and there is no sign of its relenting.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Reports are surfacing that LeBron James has spent the past several months doing everything he can to make David Blatt look like Soviet-era puppet Janos Kadar by calling timeouts, making substitutions, vetoing play calls and making Blatt fetch sports drinks for him. This can’t be at all pleasant for Blatt, and it recalls the LBJ state of affairs before his first title in Miami, when he surrounded himself with yes-men and other sycophants who let him do what he wanted. It’s impossible for one person to be GM, coach and star player – not even Bill Russell tried for the triple – and James is proving that. Even if Blatt is replaced by a James crony (hello, Tyronn Lue), it still won’t help matters, because James will remain in control. Even stars need people who can hold them accountable and rein them in. Without that, they have little chance. This is a key off-season in Cleveland, both in terms of holding on to players (so long, Kevin Love) and creating a ruling class capable of saying no at times to James. If everything doesn’t go correctly, expect another year without a world championship on the banks of Lake Erie.

-EH-

Thursday, March 19, 2015

RINGING CASH REGISTER IS OFFICIAL NCAA TOURNAMENT SOUNDTRACK

There has yet to be an official study done to determine whether CBS stock comes out of Jim Nantz’s veins when he is cut, but there is no better front man for the three-week commercial disguised as the NC2A tournament than the ultimate Corporate Champion. Yes, there will be a winner crowned on April 6, but before the treacly “One Shining Moment” montage oozes forth, CBS, Turner and the folks in Indianapolis will subject us to enough promotional content to make even Ron Popeil blush. You better have an airsickness bag ready while watching the NC2A’s propaganda about how much it cares for the very athletes it abuses.

The bloated, 68-team tourney began Tuesday with the scintillating “first-round” games, which must have been designed in some masochist’s mind to create excitement among four teams that will never really participate in the tournament. Congratulations, Manhattan!! You’re in the NC2A Tournament. Well, sort of. By the time the real action kicks off, the “First Four” losers will be back on campus, trying to convince friends that they were indeed part of the Madness. Talk about a cruel joke.

Maybe next year, the NC2A can prank call bubble teams to tell them they’re in the tournament when they really aren’t, tape the responses and then show them on a hilarious blooper show hosted by Barles Charkley.

Random Punk’d AD: You mean we’re not in the tournament?

Charkley: Ha! Ha! No, you’re not.

RPAD: Coach, you’re fired.

The ratings would be huge.

While CBS contemplates future programming options, this year’s tournament will roll on, with copious commercial interruption. Those two Capital One ads were pretty funny on the Selection Sunday show, but the credit card company better have made about 50 of them, because the originals could be pretty stale come early April. Meanwhile, the basketball world will wonder if anybody can beat Coach Cal and his selfless Kentucky team, which has stormed through the rotten SEC without any semblance of an offense.

The excitement is building. The commercials are set. Nantz is ready to shill. Let the Madness begin.

Undefeated, Underwhelming: We are always told to consider teams and athletes according to the eras in which they competed. According to that metric, UK is amazing. But these Wildcats would be 10-point dogs to the ’76 Indiana perfectos and would get six points from the back-to-back Duke champions in ’91 and ’92. And don’t even get El Hombre started on what the Walton Gang would have done to this group. The underlying story here is that college basketball isn’t very good right now. Control-freak coaches preach defensive strategies designed to make the game appear as if it is being played in the La Brea Tar Pits. The AAU culture creates prospects concerned only with themselves, and constant transferring by high school students prohibits them from learning needed skills, because coaches are petrified of exercising discipline, for fear that their players will blow town overnight. Going 40-0 is a worthy accomplishment, but it comes at a time when the sport is sagging.

Happenstance. Yeah, Right: As usual, the tournament offers some compelling pairings that just happen to be there by a stroke of tremendous good fortune. Kansas coach Bill Self absolutely won’t play Wichita State, even if the Shockers promised to visit Allen Fieldhouse 40 straight times. But somehow, through a remarkable serendipitous turn, WSU and the Jayhawks will collide in the third round (El Hombre still isn’t used to that), should each take care of business in their first game. Shocking! And how about the idea of pitting SMU and Larry Brown against UCLA – the school he took to the national title game in 1980 – in a second-round matchup. How did that happen?! If Butler and Notre Dame prevail in their openers, we’ll have a Hoosier state throwdown in round three. Coincidence, all of it. CBS would never try to influence the field, even though it has 10.8 billion reasons to do so. Next up, writers for The Big Bang Theory introduce a new character, Joe the Creationist, and none of the suits in New York cares.

Grab the Pepto: El Hombre has always said that the first weekend of the tournament is for the Madness, and everything after that is about choosing a champion. Since whichever team wins it all is universally regarded as the champ, it doesn’t matter who gets dumped early on. So, bring on the upsets. Of course, the increased parity throughout the sport lessens the shock value, but triumphs by double-digit seeds over their perceived superiors is always a lot of fun. We’re still waiting for the biggie – a 16 over a 1 – and fret not, because it is coming in the next five years. This time, here are a few shockers (as opposed to Shockers) that will spawn some serious indigestion: Davidson over Iowa; Texas over Butler; Wofford over Arkansas; Stephen F. Austin over Utah and – if you want to get really nuts – UC-Irvine over Louisville.

The Verdict: It has been a long while since the tournament had such a prohibitive favorite, and if Kentucky loses before the Final Four, it will be an upset on par with any in tournament history. So, put the Wildcats into the final weekend. They will be joined by Arizona, a real threat to UK primacy, Gonzaga (finally!) and Oklahoma, which could lose in the third round or prevail in an imperfect region. (If you want a real Final Four sleeper, choose Michigan State, simply because nobody handles March better than Tom Izzo.) Kentucky dumps ‘Zona in a whale of a semifinal, while the Zags take care of OU in the other. Kentucky fulfills its perfect destiny with an 80-69 triumph over Gonzaga.

A Final Word About Cal: There is no way of knowing for sure how Kentucky coach John Calipari gets his players, and his numerous tournament stumbles bring his game management skills into question. But there is no one in the game today, or perhaps ever, capable of taking nine potential NBA first-round draft choices and convincing them to sublimate their personal agendas for the good of a run at history. That’s a remarkable achievement, and El Hombre doesn’t use the word remarkable lightly. Calipari may not be an Xs and Os wizard, but he has a Ph.D. in basketball psychology.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Can you imagine the meetings that are being held on Park Avenue about the possibility of an Atlanta-Golden State NBA Finals pairing? The panic level is pretty low right now, but commissioner Adam Silver no doubt has the Sardinian Swordsmen on speed dial and is consulting Winston Wolf about ways to handle any unsavory playoff scenarios…Speaking of the NBA, posse members throughout the league’s universe are making plans for a possible 2017 work stoppage. They’re banking large portions of their allowances, cutting back on frivolous purchases and eschewing bottle service at the club. Yeah, right. If the Players Union has a weak spot in its future negotiations with league owners, it’s the Posse Factor, which could threaten the rank-and-file to cave if a new iPhone comes out during a strike…The NFL’s frenzy of personnel moves has slowed considerably after a wild first week of teams’ trading one set of problems for another, an avalanche of guaranteed money and fans’ lifting their hopes unreasonably in a sport for which free agency often brings more headaches than it solves. It’s hard to find a definitive winner in the melee, but the clear losers are Darrelle Revis and Brandon Marshall, who have to play next year for the J-E-T-S, Jets-Jets-Jets. Ugh…Hats off to Chris Borland, the talented Niners linebacker who retired after just one year in the NFL in order to prevent further head trauma that could lead to long-term health concerns and – perhaps – early-onset dementia. Future research will undoubtedly buttress and advance previous assertions that repeated concussions are triggers for trouble down the road. Some fans may be angry at Borland for leaving San Francisco, but they should applaud his courage and good sense. And the NFL had better get ready for several more like him in coming years…The NHL regular season is rocketing toward a thrilling conclusion, as all four division winners are within two points of each other andZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ…Baseball’s spring training is underway, and that’s good news for orthopedic surgeons, who already have plenty of work ahead of them, thanks to elbow injuries to the likes of Yu Darvish, Zach Wheeler and Josh Edgin. (Expect Cliff Lee to join the parade at some point.) It makes one wonder just how many pitchers in the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s were gutting it out with serious injuries that went undiagnosed and unrepaired.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? How about that swashbuckling, devil-may-care, push-it-all-to-the-middle Chip Kelly? What a daring fellow. While it’s too early to pass complete judgment on his off-season binge, a couple things are completely clear about the Eagles’ Maximum Leader. First, he is absolutely in charge. He tried to tell us that it was Jeffrey Lurie’s idea to depose his good pal Howie Roseman and place him in charge of jockstraps and the team’s Accounts Payable Department, but anybody who believes that should call El Hombre and ask about the attractive financing rates he is offering on the sale of Independence Hall. This is Kelly’s show, and Lurie hasn’t taken a chance this big of a chance since he helped bankroll V.I. Warshawski, which starred Brian Bosworth. Wait. That was Kathleen Turner? Oh, my. Second, Kelly is taking some big chances with his personnel acquisitions. QB Sam Bradford, linebacker Kiko Alonso, running back Ryan Mathews and cornerback Walter Thurmond are all coming off of serious injuries. If the Sixers added this collection of hobbled performers, they would be accused of putting the Tank into hyperdrive. In just over two years, Kelly has completely recast the culture, roster and systems of the Eagles. If he doesn’t succeed, it will take years for this franchise to rebound.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Now that Bud Sellout has ridden out of town on a pile of cash and good wishes from the owners for helping save baseball by embracing steroid-addled, long-ball bashing carnival freaks, Pete Rose thinks it’s time to make his move. Sensing weakness atop the MLB hierarchy – as if Sellout was Antaeus – Rose has reached out to new commissioner Rob Manfred in an attempt to Get Back In. Manfred has said he will listen, but he had better not cave in. Rose has yet to make a sincere apology for his betting on baseball, something that has been clearly outlined as a serious violation for decades. As bad as the steroid abusers were for the game, there was no policy in place that forbade the use of performance enhancing drugs until just a few years ago. Rose knew what he was doing was wrong, and he continued to do it. Further, he has remained combative in the years after his banishment and has demonstrated little true remorse. It’s sad that such a great ballplayer and competitor has become a tragic story, but Rose’s inability to understand that damage he did to baseball through his actions makes it impossible for the game to welcome him back. He’s running out of time, and unless he makes a substantial change in his approach to his previous actions, any possible reinstatement could well come posthumously.

-EH-

Thursday, June 12, 2014

HEY, EVERYBODY, IT'S CRAZY SOCCER TIME!

Despite the fact that FIFA, the world soccer governing body, is run like an old-fashioned Soviet-era kleptocracy, whose leaders gorge themselves on seven-figure bribes and somehow still radiate indignation when their collective shred of integrity is questioned, the greedy bastards still know how to throw one hell of a tournament. The World Cup begins today, and for a month, anyone with a love of soccer or international sporting mayhem will be adhered to his TV set, hoping that the total goals scored comes close to the number of flops by various high-strung drama kings.

The World Cup is the greatest sporting spectacle on the planet. Nothing else attracts the kind of attention that it does, and nothing else brings out more national pride. You can have the Olympics, largely because the average sports fan doesn’t care about 75% -- or more – of the events at any time other than when the Games are contested. Curling? Kayaking? Biathlon? Not a chance. No way. You must be high. Hmmm. Maybe those sports should relocate to Colorado and repackage themselves to the newly baked populace. “Dude, did you catch that stone’s hog-to-hog speed? Awesome!”

This year’s competition is in Brazil, which has a thrilling blend of stifling Amazonian jungle heat, angry subway workers (and practically everybody else) on strike, way over budget costs, crushing poverty and Pele. If it weren’t for Carnivale, thongs and that giant statue of Jesus, there might be no reason to go there. But hundreds of thousands of soccer pilgrims will flock to South America’s largest country during June and July to watch the action. Here are some of the storylines they will be following.

England Win – Not! The last (and only) time St. George’s crew won this thing – 1966 – the Beatles were hot, and Sean Connery was still making Bond movies. Ah, those were the days. No wonder Austin Powers was so happy. Sir Bobby Charlton and the boys dumped West Germany in the finals before a delighted home crowd at Wembley. Alas, that was it for British supremacy in the sport that gained steam on the island during the Middle Ages. (The Chinese were said to have kicked a ball around in the second or third centuries, but Mao later said that they were actually booting about the heads of dissidents, and everyone agreed.) This year, the Brits have a fine side, led by Wayne Rooney and some other pale folks. And they have little or no chance of winning it all. In fact, they may not even get out of group play, since they have been cast in with mighty Uruguay and perennial power Italy. Perhaps the most interesting thing will be whether the English soccer hooligans will be able to overcome the swelter and copious amounts of Brahma Beer to riot properly.

Group(s) of Death: The England/Uruguay/Italy collection is nasty indeed, but things are even worse for the U.S., which has to deal with the Squareheads and Portugal, not to mention the scary Black Stars of Ghana, who reached the quarterfinals four years ago in South Africa’s vuvuzela-thon. (A side note: Brazil’s answer to the cacophonous ‘zela, the serpentine-sounding caxirola, has already been banned from the ’14 proceedings. El Hombre is sure the Brazilian faithful will obey the orders.) Anyway, there’s no chance whatsoever the FIFA crooks conspired to create some of these death traps. Right. Meanwhile, Argentina gets to hang out with the non-threatening trio of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nigeria and Iran, which had considerable trouble arranging “friendly” exhibitions, since nobody wanted to come to the archaic theocracy, despite promises of yellowcake uranium parting gifts.

Mr. Personality: That would be Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, who during the last few years has bitten an opponent, called another a racist name and threatened to make the French look positively heroic by flopping more than Ben Afleck’s movie career did from “Chasing Amy” until “Argo”. (“Dogma” not included.) The man can score goals, as evidenced by the pile he accumulated for Liverpool this past season, but it will be interesting to see whether he can keep his cool as the cauldron heats during the Cup, or if he goes nuts. Here’s a vote for nuts. It’s always more fun.

Lionel Messy: Yes, soccerheads, El Hombre is aware that the Argentine striker’s last name is spelled “Messi”. But when he hurled during La Albiceleste’s final tune-up game, Messi reminded everyone of the pressure he is under to revive his country’s World Cup glory. Puking on the pitch has been Messi’s calling card of late, and it’s hard to tell whether he is merely channeling Willie Beamen or is succumbing to the stress of being this generation’s Diego Maradona. (Maradona, by the way, has made himself look like a complete ass of late by criticizing Pele’s talents and accomplishments. Hand of God. Mouth of moron.) For all of his magical work with F.C. Barcelona in La Liga, Messi has scored just once in World Cup play. His countrymen are already mad at him for playing professionally abroad. If he doesn’t deliver in Brazil, Messi’s nerves may be the least of his problems.

Booooring: There are plenty of drab teams in the Cup field. Greece plays as if its players will be denied ouzo rations if they score too many goals. The Squareheads’ maddening efficiency doesn’t exactly inspire great excitement, either, and is sort of scary, given their martial history. Then there is Spain, the defending champs. The lineup is packed with talent, and the side’s success has been impressive. But let’s hope the Spaniards don’t make it too far in the tournament, because they just aren’t that much fun to watch. Fans ought to hope for semifinals that include as many South American countries as possible, the better to guarantee some lively soccer – and crazy fan antics.

The Pick: It’s tempting to go with the home side here. The frenzy that would accompany a Brazilian championship would make Mardi Gras look like a monks’ convention. But the Selecao doesn’t have the all-around excellence necessary to survive. Spain is dangerous, but its time has come and gone. Messi could morph into a Maradona-style hero for the Argentines, provided he takes enough Pepto-Bismol. But the pick here is Germany. Yes, Euroteams rarely thrive off continent, but it’s not like there isn’t a solid Vaterland presence in South America, if you know what El Hombre means.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: San Antonio interrupted espn’s LeBron-a-thon Tuesday night with a remarkable display of team basketball, or to put it in modern NBA terms, “what the hell was that?” A Spurs win would be dangerous for the league, because it might interrupt its individual-based marketing system and prove that good teams can actually be successful, rather than just stars, or those we are told are stars. James, of course, fits into the real category. But the Heat didn’t have enough surrounding him Tuesday to offset San Antonio’s devastating all-for-one attack…Joe Namath checked in with some support for Johnny Overrated this week, asking us to let the Browns rookie “live his life”. It would be great if the media would back off until we learned whether the QB’s back-foot throws will be successful in the NFL. In an attempt to fill the pipeline with new personalities to hype, Overrated has been already elevated to hero status. Come training camp, his every move and utterance will be celebrated. If you thought the Tebow circus was bad, wait until Overrated grabs the starting spot in Cleveland…California Chrome’s owner apologized earlier in the week for his classless outburst after his horse didn’t close the Triple Crown deal. Here’s hoping his whining doesn’t add any momentum to the idea that the three Crown races should be spread out more, or that all horses wishing to run at Belmont must also compete in Kentucky and Maryland, too. There’s a reason why only horse racing’s greatest have accomplished the feat: it’s hard, and only the best of the best prevail three times, no matter the conditions or the fields’ compositions. Let’s not devalue a classic sporting tradition because it’s a tough thing to accomplish…Speaking of sports classics, the U.S. Open kicks off today at Pinehurst, and without Eldrick Woods in the field, media types starved for stories beyond Bubba Watson’s Waffle House predilection (duh!) will be chasing Payne Stewart’s ghost. That’s what happens when a game builds its entire popularity around one player. Golfers will tune in to admire the pros’ swings. Everybody else will focus on buying last-minute ties for Fathers Day.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies are so bad and lifeless that it’s not even fun to scream for Ruben Amaro’s ouster anymore. That may be his greatest sin as GM: he turned a team that captivated the area into a non-factor, something so banal that it can’t engender outrage, much less enthusiasm, from fans. Amaro’s mistakes – big and small – are on full display each night before ever-shrinking audiences. Worse, with a farm system bereft of Major League talent at its top levels, the franchise is facing several years of malaise. At least when the team stunk from 1994-00, it generated some interest from fans hoping for better times. These days, the Phillies are like that business you pass on the way to work every day. It’s there, but you don’t really notice it. That is Amaro’s legacy. Nobody cares.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The unseemly Donald Sterling saga had better teach professional sports owners something about the people with whom they associate. Perhaps the upper reaches of the NBA’s community had no idea what a jerk Sterling was when he bought the Clippers, but it soon became apparent that his business practices were shady, at best, and downright unethical, at worst – to say nothing of his personal beliefs and behaviors. The recent efforts to remove him have created a surreal set of circumstances that could continue to haunt the league for months, if not years, should Sterling persist, and the courts refuse to sweep him aside. From this point on, leagues had better vet those eager to buy in for more than just financial stability. They must know as much as possible about them, the better to avoid future fiascos like the Sterling debacle. If his actions weren’t so contemptible, this would be pretty amusing. It isn’t, and the NBA could still pay a sizeable price for consorting with such a buffoon.

-EH-

Thursday, March 20, 2014

ONCE AGAIN, GREED IS THE TOP SEED

These days, whenever an athletic director, school president or conference commissioner begins talking about the state of college athletics, he should finish his comments by saying, “I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your bartenders and waitresses. And try the veal.”

It’s a comedy routine these days for the people in charge of big-time football and basketball, as they try to convince the audience that any strides made by athletes will ruin the integrity of their “amateur” pursuits, all the while accepting colossal bags of money from TV networks, sponsors and boosters that help finance successful (they hope) programs designed to promote the schools. Any time a player dares to suggest that the situation is not equitable, fat-cat administrators fall back on the myth that college sports are somehow pure.

Take Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose conference will bestow as much as $40 million on each of its members by 2017, thanks to gargantuan TV contracts. Earlier this week, he was quoted by espn.com’s Ivan Maisel in an article that heralded how prepared Delany is for the upcoming changes in college athletics, i.e. even more bags of dough arriving, courtesy of the new football “playoff”. Delany was responding to the outlandish idea that athletes should have a say in what happens to them and the recent news that some are attempting to form a union to guarantee full scholarship benefits and the right to negotiate with ADs and presidents regarding working conditions. Threatened with the loss of some of that TV and playoff lucre, Delany invoked the time-honored image of Biff’s sitting in the malt shop, wearing his letter sweater, a stack of books next to his milkshake, and an adoring Suzie sitting across from him, wondering how life could get any better.

“What I’m confident about is that the more collegiate we are, the more sustainable we are,” he said. “The less collegiate we are, the more I think the environment we are in is going to be challenged.”

Go Team!

There must be some kind of handbook distributed among college administrators containing that shameless treacle. Unfortunately, many fans hear Delany and nod their heads, thinking he is championing the old-fashioned ways of college sports. Were Delany’s words to be accompanied by a close-captioned translation, they might read a little differently.

“What I’m confident about is that the more we continue to rake in the big bucks through the same channels that professional sports leagues do, we’ll be all right. As soon as we let the athletes have any of the dough or some sort of say in how we do business, we’re screwed.”

Delany’s comments are particularly trenchant as the NC2A basketball tourney cranks to life. (Yeah, El Hombre knows it started Tuesday night, but the pigtail games don’t count.) Fans of the three-week festival of hoops had better spend every minute possible with it over the next few years, because there can be no doubt it’s going to change at some point. Once the big schools decide that they are done sharing any of their collegiate sustainability with smaller institutions, they are going to secede from the NC2A and form their own money-printing enterprise. Once that happens, the tournament will no longer be the wild and crazy ride it has been.

Ask yourself this question: Would you rather see a first-round (El Hombre refuses to call the Thursday/Friday games “second round” contests) matchup between North Dakota State and Oklahoma or one between Mississippi State and Clemson? You want the big underdog from a state where high school ball is still played on dirt courts, and citizens still point excitedly at airplanes when they fly overhead, not the boring meeting of name brands. Once the fat cats break away, those fun days will be over. Good-bye to Valpo, Dunk City and Lehigh. Say hello to drab contests between mediocre big boys. The East, Midwest, South and West regions will be renamed Greed, Avarice, Lust and Plunder. And a wonderful event will be ruined forever.

Enjoy it while you can, folks. Because collegiate sustainability will certainly prevail in the long run. The difference between now and then will be that athletes and fans will be abused once the separation occurs.

With all of that in mind, and the pigtail games out of the way, here is a primer on the 2014 tournament:

The Whining Whiner Whines: When he isn’t looking like he just bit into Charles Barkley’s shoe or ripping into refs whenever the camera isn’t trained on him, Duke coach Mike Disingenuous likes to crusade for truth and justice in college basketball – or at least pursue his evil agenda. His latest shots were directed at the Atlantic 10, which somehow cast a wicked spell over the Selection Committee and secured six spots in the tournament. Coach D was upset that those schools didn’t go through the “meat grinder” that ACC teams did. He has a point, since nothing is tougher than two games a season against Virginia Tech and Boston College. Wouldn’t it be nice if Coach D spent a season simply directing his team, rather than burdening us with his pursuit of publicity and self-aggrandizement?

Mr. Dangerfield: You have to love Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has somehow made his team into a maligned underdog, despite its 34-0 record and number one seed. Had the Shockers zipped through the season unbeaten and been seeded fifth, Marshall would have a case. Just because some people wonder whether you would have stayed pristine if you played in the Big Ten or Pac-12 doesn’t mean you have to jump on the same disrespect train that every team and athlete rides. Play the games. Win the games. And stop looking for artificial means of motivation. If your players aren’t ready to play by now, they don’t have a shot.

Wild West: If you’re looking for the bracket most likely to be blown up like someone voting against Crimean secession, check out the West. Arizona is fun to watch, but the Wildcats don’t shoot it that well from behind the arc and don’t hit their free throws at the highest rate. Wisconsin is fun to watch offensively, but the Badgers don’t D up like they usually do. Creighton was made to look quite ordinary by Providence in the Big East final, and the last time we saw San Diego State, it was part of a poster series for Dunk City. Don’t be surprised if Baylor or Oregon comes out of this region.

Paging Big Pink: Nothing is more fun in the first couple rounds than big upsets – unless you’re on the losing side. The Big Names had better keep some Pepto on hand, in case disaster strikes. Here are some Thursday/Friday surprises: Stephen F. Austin over Virginia Commonwealth; North Dakota State over Oklahoma; Providence over North Carolina; Louisiana over Creighton; Tennessee over UMass.

Finally: And your Final Four: Florida, Michigan State, Arizona, Duke. Championship game: Florida 74, Duke 71.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Reports are that Houston and Chicago are the frontrunners for the services of CarMElo Anthony, once the machine-gunning forward opts out of his Knicks contract – or new president Zenmaster Zenny tosses him to the curb. You know what that means? One of those teams isn’t going to win a title for a looooong time…Even though he issued a statement saying he is withdrawing from this weekend’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, expect Eldrick Woods to show up anyway and take some hacks, if only to show everybody how much his back hurts. Fred Couples had serious back troubles for years, but he never once gave even the slightest indication he was in pain. If Woods so much as twists the wrong way, he drops his club and grabs his back as if someone has just hit him with a nine iron. What’s that? Oh, sorry…Serial bully and equal-opportunity abuser Richie Incognito has left therapy and announced he is “ready for his next victim”, er, “anxious to get back on the football field and help a team win without berating or harassing any teammates”. Yeah, that’s it…Organizers of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are denying reports that they paid as much as a million pounds to a former FIFA vice president to secure the games in their God-forsaken pile of sand. Qatar World Cup head Louis Renault said, “I’m shocked, shocked, to learn that bribes have been paid.” Just another day in the land of FIFA, which makes the Medicis look pristine…espn announced that Chris Fowler would be replacing Brent Musburger as its lead announcer on college football broadcasts. Musburger needn’t worry. He’ll handle games on the new SEC Network and serve as a chaperone at the National Cheerleading Championships. Oh, my…A swarm of bees descended on Wednesday’s exhibition game between the Red Sox and Yankees, delaying action and leading espn to issue a press release that announced even the “insect world is fired up for baseball’s greatest rivalry”. The network then added 19 more New York-Boston games to its primetime schedule, bringing this season’s total to 112.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Since the Phillies’ cast of Old Timers isn’t likely to mount a serious charge at the NL East title, local fans will have find their drama in other places besides the standings, like by participating in a pool to see which one of the nine 35-plus players on the team gets the first endorsement deal from Celebrex. Better still, they can watch the season-long standoff between manager Ryne Sandberg and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. A 10-and-five man who has the ability to veto any trade the Phillies try to make, Rollins won’t leave town under any circumstances, and may just hunker down in the clubhouse bathroom – George Costanza-style – rather than change addresses. Rollins needs 434 plate appearances this year to vest his $11 million salary for 2015, and it will be interesting to see whether Sandberg tries to limit Rollins’ activity. With contention unlikely, that subplot will certainly be more interesting than watching Ryan Howard flail at lefthanded pitching or listening to Chase Utley’s knees decay further.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 22 in a row and probably wouldn’t warrant a five seed in the CBI tournament, but they aren’t the only NBA team committed to securing the best possible Lottery position in the June Draft. All over the league, teams have gutted their rosters in the hopes of putting the worst possible menagerie of basketball “talent” on the court every night. The result is a league bottom-heavy with pathetic franchises and a precious few clubs capable of contending seriously for a title. What’s worse is that a Draft once thought to be 10-15 deep with NBA-caliber talent doesn’t look so overwhelming anymore. Because of that, the teams that have tanked (and there’s no other word to describe what’s going on) have consigned themselves to misery for several seasons, if they emerge at all. It’s time for the NBA to enlist its best minds to find a way that ensures this kind of stuff never happens again. Get to work, folks. This must be stopped.

-EH-

Friday, February 21, 2014

Time For An (Overdue) Change

“They got a building down New York City; it's called Whitehall Street,
where you walk in, you get injected, inspected, detected, infected,
neglected and selected.”


Those of you are fans of Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant” know that the above snippet describes his take on what draftees went through during the Vietnam War. If we are to believe the song, Guthrie went through the induction process’ poking and prodding but didn’t make it to ‘Nam, thanks to an earlier arrest for littering and creating a public nuisance.

Arlo won’t be in Indianapolis this weekend for the NFL Combine, but plenty of young football hopefuls will subject themselves to a litany of physical, intellectual and emotional tests in the name of improving their draft statuses (stati?) and finding places on pro football rosters. It’s an annual rite that has grown from a low-key way for teams to get accurate information about players to a phenomenon that attracts paying attendees of questionable sanity and non-stop coverage by NFL Network. If you like to watch 320-pound men maneuvering their substantial frames around tiny orange cones, the Combine is your event.

Much of what happens in Indy is very public. We’ll learn how fast Cornerback X can run a 40 or how high Tight End Y can jump. Perhaps the most important work, however, occurs away from the cameras’ and fans’ eyes. That’s when execs interview prospects to see if they fit their teams’ cultures or have some personality traits that might prevent them from becoming productive investments. Those discussions, together with results of the Wonderlic Test and deep background checks by NFL gumshoes, create personality profiles that can raise or lower a player’s status. (Of course, sometimes fiery red flags are ignored, as in the case of Aaron “living on edge of acceptable behavior” Hernandez.)

This year, teams had better pay closer attention to what interviews and testing reveal about prospects, because the NFL world is going to be changing. Fallout from the recently concluded investigation into the Miami Dolphins locker room climate and the expected entry into the league by openly gay defensive end Michael Sam will mandate a seismic shift in player culture. For the first time, the NFL will look force teams to create workplace environments for everybody in the organization, from the most mild-mannered accounting assistant to the most ferocious linebacker. The last bastion of politically incorrect behavior and culturally approved bullying will be updated, and workplace standards that prevail everywhere else in the country will be implemented – and, El Hombre hopes – enforced.

That means racist and homophobic remarks are out – for coaches and players. It’s possible to challenge a man to be tougher without calling him names. It’s one thing to have a rookie bring donuts for his position group or sing his school’s fight song and another to gang up on him and fill his first year in the NFL with psychological trauma. This will have to be a top down process that comes from management, is enforced by the entire coaching staff and combines strict penalties with education about what is considered inappropriate behavior.

There will be inevitable pushback, just as there is when any cultural changes are implemented. We will hear about how behavior is being legislated and freedoms are being trampled. Since no other workplace environment tolerates abusive treatment of its workers, it’s hard to buy any of that. Players must learn that the 1950s (or 2000s) ways aren’t the right ways anymore – anywhere – and that includes the locker room. That shouldn’t be such a hard thing to understand for a large portion of NFL players, which is no doubt thrilled the prevailing mores from several decades ago no longer prevail.

It’s going to take a while for this change to be implemented, but we are already seeing signs that things will be different. Earlier this week, the Dolphins fired offensive line coach Jim Turner and head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill for their roles in the actions described in Ted Wells’ report on the scandal.

During a press conference Thursday at the Combine, Miami head coach Joe Philbin said, “We are going to do things about it. We are going to make it better. We are going to look at every avenue. We are going to uncover every stone, and we are going to have a better workplace. I’m going to make sure that happens.”

As Philbin (who should have had a better handle on this in the first place) and the Dolphins attempt to change the culture, we are already seeing some results of the league’s greater attention to players’ behaviors. In a Thursday article on SI.com, Chris Burke said that NFL teams are quite interested in Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan’s role in a 2009 reported sexual assault involving teammate Brendan Gibbons. Lewan allegedly directed angry comments toward the alleged victim and now must answer some tough questions. His teammate, Michael Schofield, who is also at the Combine, has been grilled about Lewan, too. It will be interesting to see if the NFL will be as willing this year to trade bad character issues for good play as it has been in the past.

There are going to be some “distractions” as the league moves forward, and some teams will be more willing to accept the necessary changes than others will. Eventually, though, the NFL will adapt, simply because the new players who enter the league will be more prepared to behave properly than were their immediate ancestors – and certainly more able than those men who played 30-40 years ago. The NFL is late on this, as it was on concussion safety and the hiring of African-American head coaches. Making the necessary transformation will require a league-wide commitment with commissioner Roger Moneybags out in front. It can be done.

It must be done.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: How about that Russian hockey team? Way to flame out in the quarters, comrades. And to do it against Finland, which has now won three straight against the Bear and hates its former oppressor with as much fervor as a Scandinavian country can muster, is particularly delicious. Alex Ovechkin and his teammates had better be on guard for cut brake lines and would be advised to hire food tasters. Maximum Leader Putin doesn’t like losing, and that figure skating gold doesn’t exactly sate his appetite for world domination…Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig has vowed to slow down on the field this season and not play with such abandon. That’s good news for those who were sick last year of his over-the-top home run celebrations and other showboating in the field. Depressed espn executives have made repeated phone calls begging him to continue acting like a nitwit, the better to help SportsCenter ratings…Speaking of baseball, the Mariners have to be happy that they have invested $240 mil over the next 10 years for Robinson Cano, especially after Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long has said that Cano had a tendency to dog it by not running out routine grounders. The Seattle Mariners: they’re on the move!! Slowly…How about that NBA All-Star Game. Hard to tell what was more ridiculous, the pre-game rap-a-thon and serial crotch-grab or the game itself, which featured even more points than the Sixers surrender on a given night. The East won, when an unexpected rash of defense broke out in the final minutes, holding the final score under 170 and infuriating those who love the NBA for everything but winning basketball…Meanwhile, the NHL Olympic hiatus continuezzzzzzzz…All of the American southeast is excited for this weekend’s Daytona 500, which will be preceded by Richard Petty’s receiving a special award from NOW and a pre-race musical performance by a bunch of guys in stupid hats…CBS has announced that it is dumping Dan Marino and Mr. Ed from its NFL pre-game disaster and replacing them with Tony Gonzalez in a desperate bid to make the show not suck. Unless Gonzalez is John Madden and Mike Ditka combined, that isn’t happening…How about those new Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ helmets?! A more “menacing” skull head. A bigger flag. All the team needs now are some good players to wear them.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Any Sixers fan who came away upset after Sixers GM Sam Hinkie’s Marrakesh-style trading frenzy on Thursday should be made to hand back his Julius Erving souvenir Afro wig. Hinkie may not have gained a first-round draft pick, but he did haul in a couple expiring contracts and several second-round picks while getting rid of some players who can actually help the team win some more games this year. It’s a full-on tank for the rest of the season, and it will be exciting to see what Hinkie has planned for Draft day, when he can use Thaddeus Young and his passel of picks to be the Big Player. Hats off to Hinkie. He’s doing it right so far.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: After North Carolina defeated Duke Thursday night, Tar Heels students poured onto the court to celebrate the win over Coach Disingenuous and Blue Devils. It was indeed a big win for UNC, but it’s time to establish some rules for when it’s appropriate to storm the court. First off, any time a home team knocks off Number One, the student section should empty. Second, when a huge underdog pulls a stunning upset, storm away. Finally, buzzer-beating victories over big-time rival schools can trigger an emotional response that leads to a spontaneous outpouring. That’s perhaps the best case, since it’s organic. (Or, if you will, orgasmic.) But that’s it. No more storming for beating the number 18 team. And if you have won eight straight, boast a resume with a long and deep basketball tradition and knock off the fifth-rated team in the country that happens to be your ancestral rival, stay in the stands, folks. As much fun as it is to jump around on the hardwood, you’re almost giving the rival the satisfaction of knowing you hold it in high esteem. Show some restraint and act like your team – and its predecessors – have won before.

* * *

ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD: Welcome to the big time, U.S. women’s hockey team: You choked. It was kind of the media to handle the team’s giving away a 2-0 lead in the last 3:26 of the gold-medal game gently, but the fact remains that if the men’s team were to do the same thing, it would be hammered. Sure, everybody is sad after a crushing defeat, and the emotions are raw. But this was a blown opportunity, and while Canada deserves credit for its perseverance and opportunistic play, the U.S. botched its chance. To their credit, the players made no excuses. They left that to the fawning media, which didn’t focus on the team’s inability to protect a lead in a huge game but chose instead to let us know that “sometimes it’s not meant to be”.

-EH-

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Behave Yourselves, People

On occasion, El Hombre has the chance to throw off his burden of defending truth and justice in the world of sports to become a fan. He loves cheering on the Oxford eight during The Boat Race on the Thames, and delights when the Blues dump those barbarians from Cambridge. He cherishes the opportunity to take in a few chukkas during The Season in Palm Beach. In the past few years, he has become enamored of curling and hopes that some day a team of custodians is assembled to take advantage of their inherent ability to train while working.

Ah, yes, the sporting life.

There are even times when El Hombre gets a little consumed in the proceedings, like the time he was nearly removed from the cricket grounds during the England-West Indies test match a few years back. That, however, was due to a bartender’s heavy hand with the Pimm’s. And the “Wimbledon Incident” had more to do with curdled cream on his order of strawberries than anything else.

The point is, that even the best of us can get carried away at times. Of course, that doesn’t mean bad behavior is acceptable. After last Saturday’s incident in Lubbock, it’s time to revisit the standards by which fans are allowed to behave and what steps must be taken to make sure air traffic controllers from Waco aren’t free to blather whatever they want at opposing players. The official line that has come out of the Jeff Orr/Marcus Smart dustup is that “superfan” Orr called Smart a “piece of crap.” According to a tweet from CBS Sports.com’s Doug Gottlieb, Orr texted a friend of Gottlieb’s and said that what he said “wasn’t vulgar or the N word”. If calling a college player “a piece of crap” isn’t vulgar, then our standards have changed considerably in the last several years.

(By the way, it’s not guaranteed that he didn’t use the N-word. Smart maintains Orr did say it.)

What has also changed is that fans now believe that they can say or do just about anything at games without fear of retribution. Fans aren’t tossed for screaming obscenities during games. (El Hombre remembers hearing the Penn student section chanting “F--- Princeton!” during a game at the Palestra. No effort was made to stop the profanity.) They don’t get in any trouble for getting into the faces of players and howling. Were some of this behavior repeated on the streets, the offending party might have his face flattened. Particularly unruly fans maintain that purchasing tickets entitles them to do and say pretty much whatever they want. Some boundaries remain. For instance, throwing things onto the field or court still brings an ejection. And cheering for the Milwaukee Yucks is cause for institutionalization.

Granted, the slide to increased vulgarity has been a societal issue for years. El Hombre can remember the threat of a soapy snack as punishment for using the word “suck” as a substitute for “stink” or other malodorous circumstance. Now, it’s part of the vernacular and can be heard emanating from student sections throughout games. Times have changed indeed. But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t room for decorum, particularly at college games, and it’s up to the NC2A to take a stand for civility. Asking that organization to have principles about anything other than sticking it to athletes and engorging the bottom line for its member schools is risky, but in this case we must have hope.

What the NC2A must do is mandate that schools post strict guidelines regarding fan content throughout arenas and stadiums. They belong on the backs of tickets and on any material sent to season ticketholders. They should be part of the orientation process for students. And it’s a zero tolerance policy. You make an obscene gesture, and you’re gone. Take a menacing stance toward an opposing player or fan, and it’s the gate. Those ejected are placed on a list. Misbehave twice, and it’s a season ban. Three times, and you’re gone for life.

Fans should make as much noise as possible. They should jump up and down and wear silly costumes. Spend thousands at Kinko’s on those gigantic head printouts. Boo the refs when they mess up. Blow the roof off the place when an opponent is shooting a free throw. Be creative. Be persistent. But it’s time to end the practice of directing profanity and verbal abuse at the players. If schools have to hire extra personnel to enforce the code, so be it. Players shouldn’t have to worry about some bloated “super fan’s” freedom to say whatever he wants, just because he holds a ticket.

Going to a college game should be fun. And the homecourt/field advantage is important to protect. There is a difference between supporting a team and acting maliciously. Somewhere, the idea of being a good fan took an ugly turn and no longer was based on support and enthusiasm. It developed a darker side and a nasty edge. Fans who believe it is appropriate to call a college athlete a “piece of crap” (at best) to his face have lost perspective. If the NC2A has any guts, it will work to restore it.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Fantex, a San Francisco-based company, is offering fans the chance to invest in athletes’ future earnings, with a chance to profit when they surpass a certain level of income. The first equity position available is 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who has been paid $4 million up front, in exchange for 10% of his money down the road. Shares are $10 each. Next up, the entire Jacksonville Jaguars roster, which is available in the penny stock sector…Great news for all of those pesky human-rights proponents who are upset that a reported 185 Nepalese migrant workers died last year while preparing Qatar for the 2022 World Cup/Bribe-a-thon. Qatar has released a workers’ rights charter designed to make sure that only 100 workers die in 2014. Included are provisions for a 95-hour workweek, one serving of gruel (with a chunk of meat-like product included) per day and a bathroom break every 17-hour shift…Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter has announced that he is retiring after the ’14 season, or however much of it his creaking body allows him to complete. New York management has already started planning his gala retirement ceremony, which will include gift bags for all female fans and a commemorative poster for men that includes photos of all the members of Maxim’s Hot 100 he has dated. Oh, yeah, there will be some baseball stuff, too…In other Yankees’ news, Alex Rodriguez has decided to drop all of his protests, lawsuits and petitions to the United Nations regarding his 162-game suspension for P.E.D. use. He does, however, plan on being the same clutch performer as always in 2015 and is seeking to negotiate a contract extension that will pay him $500 million through the end of time…Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett had some interesting things to say about his upcoming contract negotiations with the team. When asked whether he might offer the team a hometown discount, he told NFL Network, “There is no such thing as a discount. This isn’t Costco. This isn’t Walmart. This is real life.” In a related story, the Browns will now be sponsored by The Dollar Store.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The Phillies made big news Wednesday, on the eve of pitchers and catchers’ reporting officially to Clearwater. Ace lefty Cole Hamels revealed that biceps tendinitis discovered last November caused him to abbreviate his off-season throwing schedule. As a result, he won’t be able to start Opening Day. Hamels downplayed the injury and insisted he will be able to pitch in April. Given the Phillies’ history of low-balling their players’ ailments, it isn’t unrealistic to think he meant April, 2015. For now, we’ll choose to believe Hamels and hope that his troubles aren’t the beginning of a 162-game ride to the infirmary for the residents of Citizens Bank Manor. Meanwhile, the arrival of A.J. Burnett gives the Phils a proven innings eater who has started at least 30 games in each of the last five seasons. Burnett is expected to fit right in with the team, thanks to his recent success in Pittsburgh and the fact that he is 37, which will come in handy when the players head out to watch Nirvana tribute bands and argue which of the “Police Academy” sequels was the best.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Putinfest is rolling along nicely in Sochi, where dissidents have been quiet (or shackled in Krasnoyarsk), and any mistakes have been edited out or simply denied. The main casualty of the Olympic Games has been Bob Costas’ left eye, which has somehow escaped the protection accorded the ageless studio host by the decaying portrait he keeps in his attic. Due to Costas’ infection, viewers have been subjected to extra doses of Matt Lauer’s brand of milquetoast, which frankly fits in well with NBC’s homogenized prime-time coverage of the Games. That features drama first and competition second – unless, of course, there is figure skating to be shown. (Has anybody else spent considerable time looking for the bolts in Russian pairs skater Maxim Trankov’s neck?) The other stars of the Games so far have been the Norwegian curlers’ pants and the beautiful Caucasus Mountains, which look positively verdant in the high-40s temperatures that have characterized these “Winter” Games. Upcoming: the Closing Ceremonies, during which Putin will personally execute 10 protesters and strip to the waist to wrestle a bear.

-EH-